Australia retained the urn with a match to spare by completing a hard-fought 185-run win in the fourth Test at Old Trafford. Victory was secured when England were bowled out for 197 yesterday evening but it was set up by the brilliance of Smith.
Smith scored 211 and 82 in the match on his return from injury, following up on his knocks of 144, 142 and 92 earlier in the series.
It has been a brilliant return to Test cricket for Smith after his high-profile sacking as captain and suspension following Australia’s ball-tampering scandal last year.
Smith said: “We came here to win the Ashes. We’ll celebrate hard tonight, knowing the urn is coming home, but we also want to win at The Oval.
“I’m not sure I have ever played better. I have come back fresh from a year out, but relaxed and chilled out.
“I want to be the one in the middle doing my job for the team as I don’t particularly enjoy watching cricket!”
Australia captain Tim Paine also paid tribute to Smith. He said: “Anyone who has watched him bat knows the talent, hunger and skill that he has got, but people don’t see how driven he is and how he trains, eats and sleeps batting. He is just a genius and I never had any doubt he would come back and be the player he was. The scary thing is he’s getting better. I don’t know where it is going to stop but we are enjoying being on the ride, that is for sure.”
Paine also hailed the character of his squad to bounce back after a shattering loss in the third Test at Headingley.
He said: “There were a few nervous moments there coming off Headingley but I thought we learnt from that, held our nerve and bowled really well against a team that fought really hard like we knew they would.
“In terms of what we’ve been able to achieve as a group it is pretty satisfying from where we’ve come from in the last 18 months. It’s great character, it shows the great people we have got and shows we’ve also got some really good cricketers in our team.
“Also from where we’ve come from even from last week. That was a loss that would break a lot of teams. I could feel it during the week but we turned up here and did our job like good sports teams do.” Joe Root has no doubts he is the man to lead England back from the disappointment of surrendering the Ashes on home soil for the first time in 18 years.
Root’s hopes of getting his hands back on the famous urn, which England lost after a 4-0 beating on the 2017/18 trip Down Under, evaporated at 6:15pm on the final day of the fourth Test. There was no doubting the home side’s desire at Old Trafford, where they defied the tourists for 84.3 overs against the odds, but there were still 81 deliveries left to bowl when Josh Hazlewood trapped Craig Overton lbw to leave England 197 all out.
That left Australia with an unassailable 2-1 lead going into the final match, as well as ensuring Root would be his country’s first skipper not to win the series on home soil since Nasser Hussain in 2001.
Questions over his captaincy have yet to be asked at much more than a murmur, partially because there are no clear-cut rivals for the job, but this is the stage on which England’s Test skippers are ultimately judged.
Root was visibly distraught after seeing his side’s resistance come up short but is single-minded about his own future. “Definitely, yes,” he said when asked if he felt he was the right man for the job.
“Whenever you lose a series it hurts and I have to take that on the chin. It’s still very raw. You have to look at areas you want to get better at, both in yourself and as a team.
“But I have been given a fantastic opportunity to captain the Test side and will continue to work very hard doing my best at that. That is in my control and I have to make sure I keep getting this team in the best shape to win as many games as possible.”
There is precious little time to wallow in the aftermath of defeat, their first at the Manchester venue in 11 Tests, with the final international clash of a long, draining and – lest it be forgotten less than two months on from the World Cup win – historic summer of cricket, close at hand.
The fifth Test begins on Thursday and with a score to settle, a series to draw and points up for grabs in the inaugural World Test Championship, Root is focused on the task at hand. “It’s important to look at next week. We have an important Test match against Australia and we have to make sure we finish this summer strong: do not lose this Ashes series,” he said.
“We have the Test championship to play for, do not lose this Ashes series. It matters to me, it matters to everyone involved. I know the Ashes are not coming home but in terms of the Test championship, at the end of the two-year cycle those points could be crucial. Every game against Australia matters.”
Root added: “I thought everyone showed a lot of courage, resilience, character, and everyone should be really proud about how they approached the day. Our guys fought extremely bravely, dug in and put a high price on their wicket. That almost makes it a little bit harder to take but at the same time I could not be more proud with how we fought.”